The segregation of public transportation had a long history in Virginia. During Reconstruction there were some horse-drawn streetcars that were exclusive to whites, but by the mid-1870s black and white passengers probably sat were they pleased. After electric streetcars were introduced to Richmond in the 1880s, segregated seating became a hotly contested topic. In January 1904, nearly a decade after the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson declared that substantially equal segregated seating on railroads did not deprive African Americans of the equal protection of the laws, the Virginia General Assembly passed an “Act Concerning Public Transportation,” with little fanfare or public debate, creating legislation which allowed, but did not require segregation on streetcars. On April 1, 1904, the Virginia Passenger and Power Company made an announcement that the rules for segregation would be enforced later that month on electric street cars in Richmond.
The new legislation allowed transit companies to set aside and designate certain seats for members of either race. The authority to make this designation was given to the conductor, who was to change the number of seats allocated to either race as the racial makeup of the streetcar changed. This makeup would constantly change as the streetcar moved back and forth through the various sections of the city, thereby empowering the conductor to have a passenger change seats as often as he thought necessary. A history of mistrust and violence already existed between the African American community and the streetcar conductors, especially after a near lynching in 1902. The newly granted police powers for the conductors did nothing to ease the minds of the African American community.
The announcement of segregated streetcar service was met with opposition by the African American community in Richmond. John Mitchell, Jr. and Maggie Walker advocated for a boycott of the streetcars in their respective newspapers, the Richmond Planet and the St. Luke Herald. Both urged African Americans to avoid streetcars and walk instead. The boycott was well accepted and had a high percentage of participation. Once the boycott took effect in April 1904, barely a week passed without Mitchell encouraging and supporting the boycott of the streetcars to continue. This was done through a series of stories, poems, and a variety of pieces that extolled the health benefits of walking.
Mitchell and other African American leaders believed that the boycott could be effective. The streetcar company was already suffering economic hardship, and the new legislation did not require segregation, only allowed for it. Thousands of African American Richmonders continued the boycott for more than a year, walking and finding alternate forms of transportation. Despite seeming close to a victory, the Virginia General Assembly altered the legislation in 1906, requiring segregation in public transportation. The Richmond boycott lost its energy shortly thereafter.
1. What made the segregation practices on the Richmond streetcars unique?
2. Why did the boycott of the Richmond streetcars end?
1. If the Virginia General Assembly had not changed the law in 1906, how long do you think the boycott would have continued? Do you think that the ultimate outcome would have been different?
2. There are obvious links between the Richmond streetcar boycott and the Montgomery bus boycott. Which do you find more remarkable? Why? Do you think that your answer would be different if both protests had taken place in the same time period?
Alexander, Ann Field. Race Man: The Rise and Fall of the “Fighting Editor” John Mitchell Jr. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.
Meier, August, and Elliott Rudwick. “The Boycott Movement Against Jim Crow Streetcars in the South, 1900–1906.” Journal of American History 55, no. 4 (March 1969): 756–775.